A quasi-secular ideology remained dominant for much after independence, but concessions were periodically made in favour of particular religions

Until the beginning of the 20th Century, India’s war of independence from foreign rule was fought on the plank of equality of all faiths and of their followers. The scene changed thereafter and certain sections of the majority community began projecting their religion as an inseparable part of the country’s future political ideology. As a reaction to this, some Muslim leaders began demanding special arrangements for their community in the nation’s forthcoming political structure. These competitive aspirations eventually led to the partition of the country accompanying its independence from British rule in 1947. During the protracted phase of Constitution-making, demands were made for the protection of certain religious traditions in the national charter under preparation, and some of these had to be accommodated. This gave birth to a peculiar concept of state secularity, different from how the rest of the world understands it.

No state religion

Adopted in the third year of independence from foreign rule, the Constitution of India did not declare any religion to be the state religion or an otherwise privileged faith tradition. It declared liberty of belief, faith and worship and equality of status and opportunity to be the basic ideals of future polity, and non-discrimination on religious grounds to be one of the people’s Fundamental Rights. However, it neither erected a U.S.-type ‘non-establishment’ clause — a ‘wall of separation’ between state and religion — nor adopted the French doctrine of laïcité requiring the state to estrange its people from all walks of life. To put it in concrete terms, the state was not prevented from playing a role in the affairs of religion, but religion was to have no role whatsoever to play in state affairs. Twenty-six years later the Preamble to the Constitution was amended to add the word ‘secular’ to the prefatory description of the character of the country. It, however, made no difference, and the concept of secularism remained basically distinct from its western stereotypes, leaving ample room for the politicians of tomorrow to play with it as they liked.

A quasi-secular ideology remained dominant in state affairs for about half a century after independence, but throughout these years concessions were periodically made in favour of particular religions. Towards the end of the 20th Century, the majority community’s protagonists of a different ideology that they called ‘Hindutva’ — an ideology which insists on the religio-cultural beliefs and practices of the majority community being an essential attribute of patriotism, national culture and social practice — began aspiring to capture political power. Soon they took over the reins of the nation and their ideology of ‘cultural nationalism’ remained dominant in the country’s governance throughout their six-year rule. The professedly secular political outfits returned to power in 2004 and have ruled the country for a full decade. There have been severe blows to secularism under both dispensations — destruction of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992 and the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 bear testimony to this fact. The difference has been of a passive tolerance and active support to a gradual decline of the ideal of state’s secularity and neutrality to religion.

The judiciary and secularism

The judiciary in India has been generally favouring the ideology of secularism. A leading case on India’s secular character was decided by the Supreme Court in 1994. The Court declared that secularism was an inalienable part of the Constitution and clarified that “secularism is more than a passive attitude of religious tolerance; it is a positive concept of equal treatment of all religions… when the State allows citizens to profess and practise their religions, it does not either explicitly or impliedly allow them to introduce religion into non-religious and secular activities of the State” (S.R. Bommai v. Union of India, 1994). There have, however, been occasional aberrations too, a clear instance of which was found in the late Justice J.S. Verma’s so-called Hindutva judgments of 1995. Gravely disturbed by their tenor, his brother judge K. Ramaswamy hastened to get them referred to a larger Bench for review. The public outcry against the language used in those rulings, which seemed to be lending weight to protagonists of political communalism, forced the learned author to dispel such impressions in a clarifying decision given in quick succession. He was soon appointed to the Chair of the National Human Rights Commission, and his policies and performance there turned into a direction exactly opposite to what his earlier judgments were made out to be.

Democracy envisages periodical change of guard, and a time for that has come once again. The race for taking over the reins of the nation next is currently on, and is unfortunately fast developing into a tug of war between professedly secular and conspicuously communal ideologies. The outcome is anybody’s guess. Neither unbridled political ambitions nor media speculations will however be decisive. The people of this country will be the real arbiters of its destiny.

(Tahir Mahmood is a former Chair of National Minorities Commission and ex-member of the Law Commission of India.)

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